from NO DEPRESSION Magazine, Nov-Dec 2004 issue:
SKEETER DAVIS, 1931-2004
Near the end of Skeeter Davis' honest, sometimes unsettling 1993 autobiography,
Bus Fare to Kentucky
, she concludes that "without the valleys, I could
not have enjoyed the mountains." True enough. She's journeyed through poverty,
musical triumphs and stumbles, controversy, three marriages, and traumas
capped by sixteen years battling the cancer that ended her life September 19 at age 72.
Mary Frances Penick, born in a two-room cabin near Glencoe, Kentucky, in 1931, was
the first of William and Punzie Penick's seven kids. Her grandfather, impressed by
her energy, nicknamed her "Skeeter." Around 1947 the Penicks relocated to Covington,
Kentucky, where she sang with high school classmate Betty Jack Davis. As the Davis
Sisters, they gained momentum working at Detroit's WJR Barnyard Frolics in the early '50s.
Their smart, assertive harmonies impressed RCA's Steve Sholes, who signed them in 1953.
That summer, as their "I Forgot More Than You'll
Ever Know" headed to #1, a violent car crash left Betty Jack dead and Skeeter injured.
Betty's conniving stage mother coerced Skeeter into performing with Betty's sister Georgia
through 1956. Skeeter had to marry (briefly) to finally escape Mrs. Davis.
Chet Atkins played guitar on nearly all the Davis Sisters' RCA sessions. By 1958 he ran
RCA Nashville; suspecting Skeeter's voice had broader potential, he multitracked her vocals
to echo the Davis Sisters sound. Amid such masterpieces as "Am I That Easy To Forget", however,
were gimmicky "answer" hits such as "Lost To A Geisha Girl", a response to Hank Locklin's hit
"Geisha Girl". She joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1959.
The angst-heavy 1962 ballad "The End Of The World" finally gave her the massive pop country
crossover success Atkins envisioned. A year later, "I Can't Stay Mad At You" did likewise.
Though Davis had five singles earning Grammy nominations, Atkins didn't establish a musical
consistency, resulting in a surfeit of grossly overproduced material. Her albums ran the
gamut from gospel and pop standards to duets with Bobby Bare or Porter Wagoner to
Flatt & Scruggs, Buddy Holly and Dolly Parton tributes. She fared better at RCA in the
'70s when her ex-guitarist Ronny Light produced her.
Her quirks (a home menagerie complete with pet ocelot) and personal trials earned
her media attention. A 1959-64 marriage to egocentric WSM disc jockey Ralph Emery left
bitterness that reverberated through their respective autobiographies. The uniquely tolerant,
free-spirited Christian fundamentalism she practiced challenged Opry customs. She was among
the few to warmly greet the Byrds during their tension-filled 1968 Opry appearance. In a 1973
Opry performance, she chided Nashville police for arresting street evangelists, earning her
a 15-month suspension from the show.
Davis left RCA around 1974 and subsequent records were spotty, with one exception:
She Sings, They Play was a clever, stylish 1980s album with NRBQ, whose bassist,
Joey Spampinato, she married in 1983. The Opry rift eventually healed. It became her
primary performing outlet except for overseas tours, but her woes persisted; her parents'
deaths sent her into a tailspin, and 1988 brought her first cancer diagnosis. She and
Spampinato divorced in 1996.
Skeeter Davis recorded some memorable music. More importantly, in an industry that
rarely embraces - and often suppresses - the unconventional, her joyous eccentricity
was refreshing in itself.
- RICH KIENZLE
Skeeter Davis was one of the pioneering female vocalists in
country music. Long before there was Loretta, Dolly or Tammy,
Skeeter Davis was blazing a trail for the female singers who
would follow in her footsteps. Not only did Skeeter give us a career full of
real country standards- she also gave us a handful
of pop classics.
Skeeter Davis was born on a farm in Dry Ridge, Kentucky, the first of seven children in the family
of Sarah and William Penick. In her early childhood she chose country music as her life's ambition,
but the road to success was long and trying. She passed the first milestone in her quest the day she
met Betty Jack Davis in a high school singing session. Thus was born "The Davis Sisters" duo.
After months of travel and public appearances, they were auditioned and signed to a recording
contract by RCA Victor. Their first record was I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know. It
was an overnight hit and was rated the top country song of 1953. Success for the Davis Sisters
seemed just around the corner, but fate intervened. Their road to fame was tragically ended
by the death of Betty Jack in a highway accident.
If Skeeter was to succeed, she finally realized, she would have to walk her path alone. After
months of recuperation she made her first appearance as a soloist. Within a short time Skeeter
had become one of 1957's top-ranking country singers. Two years later she reached another important
objective when she became a regular member of the "Grand Ole Opry," home of most of the top
performers in the country music industry.
During the 1960s, Skeeter was one of RCA's most successful country artists.
She charted 38 country hits, 13 of which crossed over to the pop charts. Among these
was what was to become her best-known song, the million-selling record "The End Of The World"
which peaked at number two in both the U.S. country and pop charts in 1963, placing in the
Top 10 for the year in both fields.
In 1973 Skeeter
was suspended from performing on the Opry after she made a statement that
did not sit well with the conservative Opry establishment. This was followed by a rousing
rendition of "Amazing Grace." After a couple of years, due in part to the intercession
of her friend Jean Shepard, Skeeter was put back on the Opry. Skeeter never
received an apology for this intolerable treatment.
Several good compilations of Skeeter's music have been released on CD
over the years, but many of her greatest songs remain unreleased on CD. A collection
that fills in some of the gaps, Skeeter Davis: The Pop Hits Collection
has now been released on CD. This single-disc collection contains a generous 24 tracks,
many which have never been released on CD before.
The Pop Hits Collection
is available at CD Universe for a very attractive price.
Due to the popularity of the first volume, The Pop Hits Collection, Volume 2 has been issued. This
CD can be purchased now from CD Universe.